Sunday, August 9, 2020

Step Down: WORK IT

Work It is the sort of teen dance movie that would’ve been a modest theatrical hit and then go on to run endlessly on TBS or something if it had been released two or three decades ago. It’s not involving, exactly, but it’s thoroughly watchable, even if you let it fade into the background of your household chores. Just look over every once in a while for the dancing. It’s a chipper, inoffensive, amiable movie about putting on a show and finding yourself with a safe ensemble where even the antagonists aren’t all that threatening and the stakes are never too high. The cast is clean-cut and cute — in the just-aged-out-of-sugary-tween-adjacent-TV-roles sort of way — and have the moves for the choreography, which is athletic and impressive while held to a level just below a Step Up movie. (A shame those ran their course; that series was a lot of fun while it lasted.) The same middle-of-the-road, just-good-enough approach is also in Alison Peck’s screenplay’s simple plotting, which finds a plucky high school senior (Sabrina Carpenter) inadvertently letting her dream college’s admissions interviewer assume she’s on the dance team. Problem is she can’t make the dance team, and they despise her for messing up the lighting board at their last show. So she and her dancer friend (Liza Koshy) recruit a team of misfits and an initially-reluctant young dance coach (Jordan Fisher) to be an underdog new team that’ll hopefully solve every character’s little problems and maybe, just maybe, win the big competition. You know where it’s going even if you don’t.

That it is streaming on Netflix gives it the replay ability that would’ve been cable's key to cementing it in a young audience’s consciousness, without the theatrical boost that would’ve made it seem more legitimate. For movies like this, the delivery system collapses the distance between TV movie and the real deal. It looks and moves like an extended sitcom. Director Laura Terruso matches the material by keeping it brightly lit, digitally clear, and simply staged, which simply shows off the dancing and gives some space to the performers to bounce mild banter back and forth. There’s even-keel energy, over-enunciated dialogue, overwritten narration, and go-with-the-flow formulaic plot progression that never fluctuates off a middling baseline. It’s not much else. But there’s room to be charmed by movies like this, especially if you haven’t seen too many like it before. More often than not it’s pleasantly as good as it can be without being for me. Younger audiences might get into this more than I could, especially since (or is that “hopefully because”?) it’s much better than other popular Netflix Teen Movies like The Kissing Booths or Tall Girl. The cast is appealing and the dancing is good and that’s what this is all about.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Haunting of Ill House: LA LLORONA

The haunting in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (not to be confused with the decent Conjuring-verse entry based on the same ghost legend from last year) is karmic, and it's trauma. The big, dark, scary mansion that may or may not have vengeful spirits within its long corridors and dark corners belongs to an ailing Guatemalan general on trial for genocide. He’s elderly, ill, armed, and his mind is clouded. Outside, protests rage. Inside, his family and Indigenous hired help step cautiously. They’re troubled by his legacy, in a strained state as they reckon with the evil for which he was responsible, while acutely aware of the quotidian failings of a man to which they’re tied. The family is not sure how much to believe the worst, but clearly their staff does. It’s fraught. So of course there are strange sounds, eerie movements, people where they aren’t expected to be, and some in the house are more aware than others that something Wrong is here. It’s a horror movie, after all. But the haunting is born of unspeakable guilt and unbearable pain. It hangs heavy over the long, steady shots and hushed sound design, thick with political and metaphoric intent, excavating crimes, injustices of the highest order as a curse visited upon those mortal souls sick enough to carry them out. The cast of carries out this placid agitation, the kind of gnarled familial guilt where one averts eyes from the failings of an old man, only to look back when a crisis is at hand. Details — an oxygen tank, a drip of water, a new maid, a breath-holding contest — slowly accrue to the final crescendo.

In this careful, quiet simmer of a film, the palpable pain of the past ripples out into the present, working its way into cracks in the fault lines of race, class, gender, and age that spiderweb the fragile situation. The film’s perspective is often trapped in the home of this man, whose sickness was moral long before it was physical, as he stumbles and shuffles to an ending. Those keeping vigil over his last days — a queasy mixture of mourning and anticipation — are keenly ambivalent, but no less upset. Our sympathies lie with the protestors, not the man, and only sometimes his family. But Bustamante’s confident filmmaking challenges us to see with and through the art house horror trappings—the kind that come patiently in a slow drip that teases an audience with the line between reality and the paranormal—that with this tragedy in the past, the haunted ones, and the ones haunting, are his victims, and the weeping ghost deserves her dignity—and revenge. The women sitting veiled in the court room— a vision at once ghostly condemnation and corporeal witness—are the sight that lingers just as much as the maybe-spirit whose hair floats and whose wails pierce the night.

Friday, August 7, 2020

A Sitch in Brine: AN AMERICAN PICKLE

An American Pickle is perched on a premise of such delicate whimsy that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight. And yet it works because star Seth Rogen takes it just seriously enough, lending it a gentle humane grace in the midst of flimsy conceits. The idea is this: in 1919, Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant to New York City stuck living a hardscrabble Upton Sinclair life as a rat catcher in a pickle factory, falls, unnoticed, into a vat of brine. The factory is, coincidentally, condemned that day. In 2019, the vat is finally opened, and out pops the perfectly preserved man. The movie doesn’t care about why that happens; it winks at you, so you know the intent is for a fable and goes with that. It sets up what could be mere broad fish-out-of-water comedy, with the hardy, boisterous, bearded fellow, more used to manual labor and with memory of fleeing Cossacks still fresh in his mind, suddenly confronted by modern Brooklyn. (In fact, one similarly beardy hipster does compliment his style and asks if his clothes are vintage.) But what happens is slightly less schtick than you’d expect, as the film zigs into something slower, quieter, and low-key. The man is released into the care of his great grandson — his only living relative, and spitting image. 

Rogen does good work differentiating these performances, and finding warmly humorous rhythms in the disjunction between the two. One man’s bursting gregariously with a chewy eastern European accent and taking up space with ease. The other is seemingly shrinking behind his glasses and folding into himself with unexamined grief. The modern Rogen is a shy freelance app developer, lonely without any living relatives, comfortable in a small life. Good thing the old Rogen is similarly grieved, having lost his beloved wife (Sarah Snook) decades before he awoke, and missed his son’s and grandson’s lives entirely. The last living Greenbaums are now bridging a century together, and maybe, just maybe, can help each other move on. The screenplay by Simon Rich — as befits a humorist of his sort — has this bittersweet center, and then proceeds to be variations on a theme. What if the two Rogens got along? What if they didn’t? And what would social media think? The movie cycles between those three scenarios, each quickly developed and sometimes thinly sketched, but the central dual role enlivens the proceedings each step of the way. Director Brandon Trost—usually working as a cinematographer, many times for films with a Rogen connection—knows not to linger on the absurdities. This is somehow a soft-palate, quietly staged movie with a viral pickle business, a literal Twitter mob, and a circus of a court room scene within its modest framework, but always keeps the focus on the connection the men share. It’s ultimately a story of how comfortable the modern man’s life is, and yet how empty. He just needed to reconnect with his roots (religion, relatives) to bring new fulfillment to his days. And that strong idea, embodied by a fine performer, is just enough to hold the whole odd little movie together.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Wind Will Carry Us: THE HAPPENING

Then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.
    — Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”

An early image in The Happening: construction workers casually stepping off towering scaffolding, raining down, plummeting to their deaths. It really sets the stage. We’ve already seen a woman stab herself in the neck, and later will see a man splayed out in a field awaiting an approaching industrial lawn mower. Still elsewhere we will see a cozy suburban street with lush, verdant trees, and corpses hanging through their branches. These are indelibly frightening images, memorably staged and haunting in their lingering impact and implication. Here’s the deal with M. Night Shyamalan’s oft maligned The Happening, which merely had the misfortune of being released at a time when his artistic reputation was on a downswing — a nasty course correction from the “Next Spielberg” hype he’d been getting from his great early films like The Sixth Sense and Signs. That wasn’t fair. But The Happening is a good thriller, and an even better work of deep dread. It’s a vision of society suddenly falling apart, in which a damaging pandemic sweeps across the land and no one knows what to do or how to stop it. No one can weigh the risks, and no leadership emerges to contain the threat. There’s just a primal sense of escape, and even then despair. The characters are running, knowing it has to be futile. And yet they run anyway, even as the world falls down around them, as groups splinter and squabble over how to survive, as conspiracies bubble up as no one has enough information, as people turn cruel, selfish, and violent, sometimes out of desperation or fear, but scarier still, sometimes inexplicably.

When the film first arrived in 2008, and ever since, its loud detractors have scoffed at its twist. Spoiler: plants are emitting toxins that are causing people to kill themselves. Ha, they laugh, isn’t it funny to think nature is the big danger in this movie? But this isn’t a twist. It’s a reveal. (This is the case in more of Shyamalan’s films than his reputation commonly asserts, and leads to uncharitable readings of his other unfairly dismissed efforts, too.) Besides, can’t you do that belittling with every monster? Take the movie at its word, and it is scary, truly scary, to imagine a world of ecological horror, in which humanity is revealed once and for all to be at the mercy of nature and its wrath. Shyamalan sharply sees the terror of our vulnerability to nature’s whims. As our world reckons ever more acutely with the ravages of viral infection and climate change, here is a movie that grows only more unsettling. A scene where the fleeing humans race through a field, the wind whipping through the vegetation, is not about outrunning danger, but the overwhelming hopelessness of thinking you can. It turns something that can be normal and soothing — the noise of wind through leaves on a brisk day — and turns it devastatingly dangerous, an all-encompassing sense that we can’t hide from something we can’t see.

In Shyamalan’s vision, characters’ personal problems pale against the enormity and the unknowability of this scenario. So when the central relationship conflict between Mark Wahlberg (admittedly he’s not quite right for the role of a science teacher, but sells confusion and stress) and Zooey Deschanel (whose wide-eyed confusion matches the situation with the right befuddlement) doesn’t quite work, it’s at least partially because of course the larger trauma is overpoweringly the main concern. (And this is hardly the only effective horror movie with an undercooked subplot.) More evocative is John Leguizamo, who brings palpable real tension and pain when confronted with a danger he can’t confront, a situation he can’t control, for the benefit of himself and his family. All through the film are these sometimes absurd (the lions!), sometimes peculiar (the lemon drink!), sometimes recessive, quickly-sketched observations of all manner of people reacting to the unknowable dilemma. Some grow hysterical. Some say stupid things. Some go boldly in the wrong direction. Some are suspicious others want what little they have. Some have selfishness that brings others doom. Maybe they should try wearing masks? (You should.)

Shyamalan’s filmmaking remains controlled here. His camera is typically patient, with the great Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography catching the horror precisely, as shocking for elisions as it is for gore—think a chain of suicides the camera follows just out of frame, following instead the dropped gun as it passes from person to person. The suspense is set against James Newton Howard’s score going evocatively wild with simmering, swirling strings right out of a 1950’s sci-fi chiller. Maybe this is a Day the Earth Stood Still, scarier for having no interlocutor from the heavens to translate the moral. It's exactly as straight-faced a B-movie idea as that, flatly earnest about its points, using its concept to draw big fundamental horror about how little holds our modern human society together when you get down to it. When the film reaches its conclusion, a genre beat with ostensible safety leaving hints of the real danger lurking and lingering, ready to explode again, it’s totally clear this is a movie about how humanity’s short-term thinking and short-term memory will inevitably doom us. Even when nature fights back—revealing how we are literally killing ourselves by ignoring its warnings—we will too quickly race back to normal, inviting the danger’s resurgence.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Do They Really Want to Love Forever? STRAIGHT UP

Straight Up
is a romantic comedy most satisfyingly unusual. It’s poised and witty, a torrent of snappy repartee between a central couple whose compatibility is sparkling and clear. That’s not exactly unexpected, though of course it’s been so long since anyone could pull even that much off that it’s a delight to see it can still be done. The hook, though, is where the unexpected sets in, and where the movie becomes a delicate tightrope dance across modern sexual politics and categories. Because it believes deeply in its lead characters, and really sees them in all their earnest searching, it barely steps wrong. The film’s young writer-director James Sweeney, making his debut feature, stars as an obsessive compulsive gay man whose persnickety self doubt (and repulsion to bodily fluids) has made it difficult for him to find a meaningful emotional or physical connection. Inexperienced and frustrated, he’s happy and surprised to discover sparks flying when he meets a charming young would-be actress (Katie Findlay). The two quickly discover compatibility. They share a clever sense of humor and similar cultural reference points (from Gilmore Girls to Halloweentown), and have bubbly banter that rat-a-tats with dizzy screwball pacing which flirts easily between good-natured agreement and gently irascible debate. The only problem, the young man supposes, is that up until very recently he thought he was gay. She, too, seems similarly out of step with the sexualized dating of their social scene, and is happy to take it slow. Why, this pairing might just work out for the best. As the two well-drawn and sympathetic characters navigate their flowering relationship, the movie finds an easy rhythm to its development, with people trying to make a life together as they also try to find themselves. It’s willing to think outside the box and explore sexual orientations in its fluidity, and finds wry asides with a supporting cast of one- or two- or three-scene ringers (Tracie Thoms, Betsy Brandt, Randall Park). Brimming with charm and gently prodding insight—and some satirical elbows thrown against modern mores—Sweeney makes a most auspicious debut. Filmed in pastel colors and well-staged in a boxy aspect ratio, its tender textures and fastidious design—look at the just-so sets, well-chosen bookshelves, and those two sequences of sharply used split-screen— match the just-so attitude of its outwardly poised protagonists, all the better to watch as they struggle to actualize their best lives. Think watercolors painted with hints of Wes Anderson and Gregg Araki, used to make a new film all its own.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Painting Pictures of Paradise: BLACK IS KING

Beyoncé’s new film Black is King comes to us wrapped in the guise of a vague retelling of The Lion King, but that’s a simple way of stating the case, and just one element at play here. It’s more a string of sensational images and sounds—a feature-length visual album pouring out a proud celebration of the African diaspora, of Black creativity, exuberantly assembled in one eye-boggling music video after the next. Unlike Lemonade, her 2016 masterwork in which the personal and the political tightly intertwine in an allusive crescendo of pain and grace, there’s less of a narrative or emotional throughline at play in this new effort—even losing, for most of the back half, a thin motif of references to Simba’s story, including interpolated lines from James Earl Jones and others. It trades its conceit for an eruption of kaleidoscopic imagination. Like Lemonade, it studiously brings an album’s worth of songs to life in indelible visual creation. It, too, is strung along by Warsan Shire poetry coolly recited in hushed tones over a hodgepodge mixture of film stocks and shooting styles freely intercut. These shots, flowing with energy, show us a cavalcade of colorful choreography in stunning backdrops both real (stunning African vistas) and unreal (fantastical sets and CG extensions). It’s abstract and concrete— at times Koyaanisqatsi by way of Khalik Allah.

This may not have the focus and power of her earlier film, but Black is King has scope and eclecticism, just as likely to have Jay-Z rolling up in a leopard-print convertible as it is to look down on a line of blue-painted men carrying a spare white coffin across a pure-white space or a lone figure nearly lost in a drone shot of endless dunes. Drawn from The Gift, her 2019 album much better than Jon Favreau’s ill-conceived photo-real Lion King remake that was ostensibly its inspiration, the songs are a swirling mix of funky Afro-pop grooves, tribal drums, swaggering hip-hop, soulful R&B phrasing, and soaring Gospel choirs. They overflow with love for the act of creativity that birthed them, their subjects ("Brown Skin Girl" saying "They'll never take 'My Power'"), and the generosity of Beyoncé in being both ringmaster and host, the center of attention and the one inviting others to share in the spectacle.

She invites into the sequences a number of guest artists (Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid) and cameos (Lupita N’yongo, Kelly Rowland, family members), trading verses and ceding center frame to dancers echoing, incorporating, and conquering everything from Disney's animated big cat classic to Esther Williams aquatic ballets, from Hype Williams high-contrast, high-gloss videos to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria’s Volk. They pose with Busby Berkeley symmetry or spring with loose-limbed alacrity. The fashions and style are similarly vibrant mashups donned with easy charm and effortlessly effortful beauty: blaxploitation fringes and Nefertiti hair, tribal face paint and rainbow leotards. We see rooms filled with geometric black-and-white-print prosceniums, a hearse lit up like a party bus, a basket floating down the river. We see a seaside baptism, a star field crossfade with old kings, a large snake slither up shoulders.

Throughout it all, Beyoncé is Earth-mother, spiritual advisor, sensual appreciator, tableaux icon, Queen. Her character shifts, but her presence is constant. On screen, she dominates, sharing space without conceding her point, inhabiting her frames. It’s a film full of her talent, yes, but also love for her collaborators, and for Blackness as a creative energy. Behind the scenes, she’s marshaling a small army of directors, cinematographers, and stylists. She's in total control of a film that's alternately moving, hypnotic, and overwhelmingly all over the place. Once again she’s made a film in which she gathers up the past represented in these layers of influence, and points a way toward a future reformed in the spirit of love and music. It’s self-mythology as world art, free-floating signifiers caught in the orbit of Beyoncé in all her glory.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Captain's Orders: GREYHOUND

With Greyhound, Tom Hanks has written a film perfectly fitted to his Movie Star persona. Like in his great recent films Sully and Captain Phillips, he’s playing a model of good leadership, built sturdily upon moral virtue, human and humane in the face of unbearable danger and terrible odds. This World War II thriller casts him in the role of a career Navy man captaining his first ship. The mission is to escort a convoy of supply ships from America to England. As the film begins, they’ve lost their air support from the States. It will be a few dark and stormy days until they meet up with the English planes that will take its place. During this time, they will be hunted by a pack of German U-boats, intent on picking off the convoy one by one, sowing confusion and wearing down their resources until they can move in for the kill. The enemy, heard only in ominous taunting radio transmissions, overtly declare themselves wolfish predators, but the sturdy filmmaking, from director Aaron Schneider (Get Low), makes them just as much shark-like, surfacing as if with a fin, circling like Jaws. Strategic aerial shots emphasize the game of cat-and-mouse on display, a bit of literal Battleship maneuvering. They’re on the open ocean, but the film is mostly claustrophobic. Close-quarters close-ups and medium shots in cramped situations have the men (from Hanks to second-in-command Stephen Graham and a host of young character actors) pressed against the bulkheads, straining against the waves, manning their battle stations.

The tension never slacks. It’s a barrage of snappy jargon and terse commands, every gesture and decision drawn with verisimilitude and effective B-movie snap. Based on a novel by Horatio Hornblower author, and WWII vet, C.S. Forester, it feels like it gets every detail right. The radar pings. The water crashes. The rudder shudders. Hanks commands the film with his quiet steady hand, a good man who feels the weight of responsibility, each life resting heavily on his shoulder, each mistake settling uneasily on his soul. His screenplay is a model of efficiency, starting as the mission crosses into its most dangerous passage, with only an exceedingly brief early flashback to humanize his character’s home life. It proceeds full steam ahead into an elegantly simple 80-minute suspense sequence. The clean, crisp frames and pulse-raising ticking clock make the slowly diminishing hours to rescue pass with the adrenaline of stalking enemies, exciting strategy, and painful losses. It’s an effective thriller, not because the whole war or a decisive battle is at stake, but because these particular boats, and the souls on them, matter. Because they’re full of people, and their captain cares, and every wasted round, every wasted second, is one precarious step away from their goal, we care. Every ounce of sentimentality, of relief, is hard-fought, and well-earned.